STOCKTON-ON-TEES, ENGLAND — Even before the election campaign began, the verdict was in on Ed Miliband: He was too weak and too weird to be Britain’s prime minister.
His approval ratings flirted with the lowest ever recorded for a major party leader. Among his Labor supporters, there were whispers of a coup. And with Britain’s economy recovering from the depths of recession, Conservative Party leader David Cameron seemed to have reelection locked up.
But British voters, not known for their faith in the powers of redemption, have done something unusual over the past month: They’ve given Miliband, the 45-year-old son of Jewish refugees who fled to Britain to escape the Nazis, a second chance.
The Labor leader has seized it, tapping a vein of popular discontent over the widening gap between rich and poor. With just a week to go before the country votes, he’s now a slight favorite to become prime minister once the dust has settled on the closest and most politically fragmented British election in decades. Polls suggest that he is highly unlikely to secure a majority in the Parliament, but may be positioned to lead an informal and potentially fractious coalition of parties from the left.
To those who know Miliband best, his comeback is not a surprise. Instead it’s just the latest evidence of an inner combativeness that’s often masked by his nice-guy demeanor and his obsession with policy. This, after all, is the same man who stands accused of political fratricide for taking out his older brother, the then-better-known David, along the way to becoming party leader.
“He’s a ruthless politician,” said Mehdi Hasan, who co-wrote an admiring biography of the younger Miliband. “People portray him as a wonk. But he wants power just like any other politician wants power.”
And if he achieves it in the May 7 vote, Hasan and others say he is likely to use it to push for a radically progressive shift in Britain’s direction, one that not only overturns policy from the past five years of Tory rule but also departs from the 13 years of centrist New Labor government that preceded it.
“He’s the best chance for changing British politics in a profound way since Margaret Thatcher became prime minister,” said David Clark, who served with Miliband as an adviser during Tony Blair’s government. “He genuinely has the potential to be a transformational figure.”
It’s that potential, Clark said, that accounts for his dismal reputation until the past month. “Ed has chosen to pick his fights with the Rupert Murdochs of the world, the bankers, the energy companies,” Clark said. “That’s why he’s attracted such vilification. These people see him as a threat.”
Of course, Cameron and other Miliband critics argue that the threat is all too real — not just to the powerful, but to Britain as a whole.
Cameron has now staked his reelection campaign on the message that a Miliband-led government would mean “chaos” and a reversion to the free-spending policies that dug Britain deep into debt before the Conservatives stepped in with a strict regimen of austerity.
The criticism has, at times, become intensely personal, with the prime minister calling Miliband “despicable and weak” for not ruling out a post-election deal with the leftist Scottish National Party.
Cameron’s defense secretary, Michael Fallon, later picked up the attack line, and gave it a twist, when he argued that the Labor leader would bow to the SNP’s wishes and sacrifice Britain’s nuclear weapons program to advance his career.
“Ed Miliband stabbed his own brother in the back to become Labor leader,” Fallon wrote in an April op-ed in the Times of London. “Now he is willing to stab the United Kingdom in the back to become prime minister.”
But for all their intensity, the assaults on Miliband’s character in recent weeks have done little apparent damage, and may even be backfiring as the Labor leader becomes more directly visible to Britons through televised debates and campaign appearances.
Analysts widely expected the Conservatives to surge ahead in the final stretch of the campaign, with voters fleeing to the perceived safety of Cameron over the relative unknown of Miliband. Instead, the two leading parties have remained effectively tied in the polls, with the post-election calculus among smaller parties giving Labor more options for forming a government.
Although Miliband ruled out a formal deal with the SNP in a television appearance Thursday night, he still left himself room to govern with support from the Scottish nationalists, which will likely be crucial.
That the race has remained so close is in large measure a result of the Labor leader’s unexpectedly assured performances on the campaign trail. The prospect of Miliband running the country — once faintly ridiculous, even among core Labor backers — has grown on voters.
“He was starting from a very low base, but people have started to see him as more prime ministerial,” said Adam McDonnell, an analyst with the polling firm YouGov.
Miliband’s aides said that the man hasn’t changed, but that the opportunity to reach voters without the filter of the tabloid media — which routinely lampoons him as “red Ed,” and never misses an opportunity to publish cringe-worthy photos of his struggle to eat a bacon sandwich — has served their candidate well.
“The character rather than the caricature of Ed has been coming through,” said Stewart Wood, a top Miliband adviser.
And that character, Wood said, was forged in large measure through his parents. Miliband’s father caught one of the last boats to Britain before the Nazis overran Belgium. His mother escaped to Britain from Poland, but her father died in a concentration camp.
“The Holocaust shaped the outlook of my family. If you grew up like my mum and dad did with these experiences, how could you think anything other than that politics really mattered?” Miliband said in a speech this year. “For them, it was a matter of life and death and they taught me that politics did matter and you had a duty to leave the world a better place than you found it.”
Miliband, who describes himself as both culturally Jewish and an atheist, had a far less dramatic upbringing. But it was steeped in politics; his father, Ralph, was a prominent Marxist historian, and the family’s home in north London’s leafy Primrose Hill neighborhood became a frequent way station for leftist politicians and academics.
The elder Miliband’s career brought the family to the United States for visiting professorships during which his sons acquired a lifelong fascination with American politics and, in Ed’s case, a fanatical rooting interest in the Boston Red Sox.
Ralph Miliband dramatically repudiated Britain’s Labor Party, believing the system could not be adequately changed from within. But after graduating from Oxford, his sons went to work for Labor — David Miliband as an aide to Blair, and Ed as an adviser to Blair’s successor, Gordon Brown.
The brothers ultimately became ministers, with David running the Foreign Office and Ed taking the portfolio for energy and climate change. When Labor lost the 2010 election, Ed challenged his brother for the party leadership — a choice that left a jagged and still-unhealed rift in their relationship. Ed won in a major upset, largely by distancing himself from the centrism of New Labor and promising to return the party to its progressive roots.
He has continued that theme on the campaign trail this year, with vows to raise the minimum wage, and close tax loopholes for the wealthy.
“Those with the broadest shoulders should bear the biggest burden,” Miliband said this week to vigorous applause from the Labor faithful at a rally in northeast England’s Stockton-on-Tees, a historic market town that has been weighted down by closed factories and shipyards.
Answering questions, he leaned into the lectern, cracked jokes and even revealed his childhood ambition — to be a bus conductor.
“He’s very human. Snap a photo at the wrong time, and we’d all look stupid,” said Sheila Gallagher, a retired teacher who saw Miliband speak in person for the first time at the Stockton rally and came away a supporter. “He’s talking about the issues that are important to us. We don’t want rampant capitalism. We need fairness as well.”